Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. More than 500,000 new cases are reported each year-and the incidence is rising faster than any other type of cancer. While skin cancers can be found on any part of the body, about 80% appear on the face, head, or neck, where they can be disfiguring as well as dangerous.
The primary cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet radiation, most often from the sun, but also from artificial sources like sunlamps and tanning booths. In fact, researchers believe that our quest for the perfect tan, an increase in outdoor activities, and perhaps the thinning of the earth’s protective ozone layer are behind the alarming rise we’re now seeing in skin cancers.
Anyone can get skin cancer-no matter what your skin type, race or age, no matter where you live or what you do. But your risk is greater if:
Basal and squamous cell carcinomas can vary widely in appearance. The cancer may begin as small, white or pink nodule or bumps. It can also appear in the following ways:
Malignant melanoma is usually signaled by a change in the size, shape, or color of an existing mole, or as a new growth on normal skin.
Watch for the “A-B-C-D” warning signs of melanoma:
Asymmetry – a growth with unmatched halves
Border irregularity – ragged or blurred edges
Color – a mottled appearance, with shades of tan, brown, and black, sometimes mixed with red, white, or blue
Diameter – a growth more than 6 millimeters across (about the size of a pencil eraser), or any unusual increase in size
Get to know your skin and examine it regularly, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet. If you notice any unusual changes on any part of your body, have a doctor check it out.
Skin cancer is diagnosed by removing all or part of the growth and examining its cells under a microscope. It can be treated by a number of methods, depending on the type of cancer, its stage of growth, and its location on your body.
Most skin cancers are removed surgically, by a plastic surgeon or a dermatologist. If the cancer is small, the procedure can be done quickly and easily, in an outpatient facility or the physician’s office, using local anesthesia. The procedure may be a simple excision, which usually leaves a thin, barely visible scar. Or curettage and desiccation may be performed. In this procedure the cancer is scraped out with an electric current to control bleeding and kill any remaining cancer cells. This leaves a slightly larger, white scar. In either case, the risks of the surgery are low.
If the cancer is large, however, or if it has spread to the lymph glands or elsewhere in the body, major surgery may be required. Other possible treatments for skin cancer include cryosurgery (freezing the cancer cells), radiation therapy (using x-rays), topical chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs applied to the skin), and Mohs surgery, a special procedure in which the cancer is shaved off one layer at a time. (Mohs surgery is performed only by specially trained physicians and often requires a reconstructive procedure as follow-up.)